The Bengals got it on lock, man. Their game against the Jets on Sunday was an unpredictable turn of events during an otherwise highly successful early-season run. Many games this season have gone in completely unexpected directions like this one, but it still doesn’t fail to surprise fans every time it happens.
Last year’s Super Bowl champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, just lost to Trevor Siemian. The Chargers beat the Browns and Chiefs in major shootouts and then got blown out by the Ravens. Those same Ravens needed an NFL-record-setting field goal to barely scrape by against the winless Lions.
It’s been a wild NFL season — it seems like every Sunday something nobody saw coming happens. In my opinion, the Bengals aren’t some fraudulent team, and what happened Sunday doesn’t erase all their success from the previous five weeks. Bad teams can get lucky and pull off the upset, but it’s very unlikely that they experience back-to-back blowout wins and hang on until the very end with the No. 1 seed.
For the first time in more than half a decade, the Bengals are a good team, and their heavily scrutinized offseason moves have almost all been proven to have been the right decision and have directly contributed to their 5-3 record. Nobody expected them to be contending for first place in the AFC North halfway through the season, yet here we are. Let’s take a look at some of the moves and decisions that got them here.
Ja’Marr Chase vs. Penei Sewell
There was a big debate after quarterback Joe Burrow injured his knee as to who the Bengals should draft at fifth overall in the 2021 NFL draft. Many people wanted Cincinnati to take Penei Sewell, an offensive lineman from the University of Oregon who was deemed a potentially generational prospect.
There was another small faction that saw that the Bengals, as much as they needed offensive line help, also needed to add more receiving talent, and Ja’Marr Chase, the 2019 Biletnikoff winner and one of Burrow’s best friends from college, was also part of this draft class.
The conversation for whom they should take went on for months, right up until the day of the draft when the Bengals ultimately did take Chase. Even after that, the media and many NFL fans claimed the team made the wrong decision, saying Burrow would once again get hurt and the Bengals were continuing their pattern of ineptitude.
Fast forward to Week 8 of the NFL season, and Chase is top five in every single category for NFL wide receivers and might be a first-team All-Pro as a rookie, while also having Offensive Rookie of the Year all but locked up (my vote would go to Creed Humphrey or Rashawn Slater, but that’s for another time).
Chase has completely transformed Cincinnati’s passing attack and given Burrow someone who can consistently win on the outside, something they severely lacked last year. I am absolutely an offensive line guy and will always believe football is won in the trenches, but the Bengals weren’t as bad up front as the media made them out to be, and they addressed their line in ways besides that first-round pick.
Drafting Jackson Carman in the second round plugged the hole left by Michael Jordan and improved left guard tenfold. Signing Riley Reiff replaced Bobby Hart and improved right tackle significantly. Sticking with Quinton Spain paid off spectacularly. And most of all, showing full trust in Jonah Williams as the franchise left tackle has also worked out to a tee, with Williams being one of the best linemen in the NFL this season.
There is still work to be done on the offensive line — it isn’t perfect — but Chase was the right pick for what this offense needed, and he looks like he’s going to be one of the best receivers in the NFL for years to come. Sometimes, the scouts and team do know more than the media and fans, as crazy as that might sound.
Similar to drafting Chase, letting Carl Lawson walk and signing Trey Hendrickson was deemed risky and the wrong move. Hendrickson was a fourth-year breakout star with the Saints and didn’t have a proven track record. Many also said his one breakout season was overrated. Yet, Hendrickson has been one of the best pass rushers in the NFL this season and quite easily the best free agent edge defender signing.
Lawson ended up signing with the Jets and unfortunately had a season-ending injury — a concern the Bengals initially had when considering re-signing him. Hopefully for the Jets, Lawson comes back strong next season, but Hendrickson is producing at a high level for Cincinnati, silencing doubters of the Bengals’ decision making once again.
Extending Sam Hubbard was also an underrated move, as he has been a top-tier run stopper this season. Other free agency and draft decisions, such as drafting Logan Wilson (one of the best young linebackers in the NFL right now) in the third round of the 2020 draft and making D.J. Reader the highest-paid nose tackle in the NFL last offseason, have contributed to a vast improvement in run defense this season.
The Bengals also signed a former All-Pro corner in Mike Hilton on the cheap after he was cut by division rival Pittsburgh, and he’s been one of the top slot corners in the league this season.
Cincinnati made it a point to prioritize defense the past couple of offseasons, especially in a conference with guys such as Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. It appears to have more than paid off, with its defense reaching the top 10 this season for the first time in many years. Winning football takes both sides of the ball, and the Bengals have made sure to invest in every aspect of their team both with quality draft picks and free agent signings.
Close to greatness
With a young core of talented players at cornerstone positions and still being the 12th highest in cap space next season, the Bengals have a bright future. There were talks about head coach Zac Taylor getting replaced by Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Brady next offseason if this was another down year. I even witnessed some Cincinnati fans salivating at the thought of that before the season. Those talks have all disappeared now.
While this team was picking in the top 12 of the draft three years in a row, a division title and playoff berth are now well within reach. The Bengals are finally in the driver’s seat and have control of their own destiny. Will they go all the way? That remains to be seen. But life has changed in Cincinnati, in large part due to Burrow being the franchise QB the Bengals have been looking for, in addition to the other smart decisions and moves they have made over the years. And it looks like the good times (hopefully) are here to stay.